Well Made

Ep. 113 Trying to Do Right with Alden Wicker

April 8, 2020 · RSS · Apple Podcasts

With fewer cars on the road, COVID-19 could lead to the biggest drop in emissions since WWII, but this stat doesn't paint a full picture of the pandemic's environmental impact. Sustainability is complicated, and journalist Alden Wicker is an expert in navigating the nuances.

Alden worries that the strain on businesses could set back environmental progress by a decade. In Bangladesh, one million apparel factory workers have been laid off due to a shortage of new orders and huge businesses like JCPenney, Kohl's and Walmart declining to pay for orders — over $3B worth. Through the lens of sustainability, Alden is not only concerned about where those clothes might end up, but how these dire circumstances have already lead to the suspension of significant environmental regulations.

In this episode, Alden and Stephan discuss how these challenges have magnified issues in the apparel supply chain and Alden shares her three-prong solution for true environmental impact that's not solely reliant on conscious consumerism. 

“We need to start diverting all of these resources that we're pouring into educating the consumer, and start putting them into organizing again, and thinking about how we can build a systemic change that benefits a lot of people.”

COVID-19 has halted factory work and transportation for many sectors. Stephan and Alden discuss how factories in countries like Bangladesh are grappling with huge brands using the force majeure clause to avoid paying for apparel that's already been produced (6:54) leaving everyone wondering — what's going to happen to all those clothes when the season has passed? (6:54)

It seems like everyday, a new company is making significant team cuts to COVID-19. Everlane recently received blowback after laying off a large portion of their team. Meanwhile, fast fashion brand H&M has taken small steps in the right direction. Now they're one of the few brands that's committed to paying for their orders from factories. Alden and Stephan discuss the responsibility of sustainable brands in a time of COVID-19 (11:20).

Alden shares how the EPA's recent halt on environmental restrictions could lead to the fashion industry losing a decade's worth of progress (18:05), then she dives into how coronavirus has impacted Amazon (29:52). She shares her sustainability criteria for brands that she shares on her site, Eco Cult (33:52). She reflects on her article Conscious consumption is a lie and breaks down the complexity of true change into three pillars: consumers, experts, and legislation (40:13). To show how legislation can make real change, Alden shares how, in the aftermath of the tragic collapse of Rana Plaza, brands worked together to pass The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh (46:46).

To wrap up, Alden and Stephan discuss the many tradeoffs businesses have to make for sustainability, and how Lumi uses Sustainability Properties to better define those tradeoffs (51:39). Stephan explains Lumi ID — a packaging identification system that helps brands communicate packaging decisions and tradeoffs to their customers (59:29). Full transcript below.

Also mentioned on the show:

Header image by Charles Fox for UN Women Cambodia.



Stephan Ango: You're listening to Well Made, a podcast from Lumi about the people and ideas that are shaping our patterns of consumption for the better. I'm your host Stefan Ango. Alden Wicker, welcome to the show.

Alden Wicker: Thank you for having me.

Stephan: So, you are a freelance journalist. You've written for all of the publications for Vox Quartz, Ink, Refinery 29. People have probably read something that you've written in the past couple of years. You're also the founder of Eco Cult. I first came across your work, and I'm sure I had read some of your pieces before, but I recognized your byline when I read that great piece that you wrote last year about poly-mailers and poly-bags, which is an area I've been dedicating like the past five years of my life to try and solve this particular problem. But I really appreciate the research and fact checking and sometimes contrarian viewpoint that you bring to writing about fashion and sustainability, and so I'm really excited to have you on. We scheduled this before COVID, but here we are where I feel like it's important in these times to date stamp when we're talking. It's March 31st right now.

Alden: Yeah, very important news changes fast.

Stephan: Yeah. So, welcome to the show and I think we've got a whole panoply of different topics relating to the new stuff that you've written over the past year or two and stuff that's coming out. You've been very involved in tweeting about COVID and its impact on fashion. There's not really a question there, but how's it going? You're in New York right now. How is it over there?

Alden: I wish I could give you a better description of what it's like, but I honestly just been inside my apartment. So, I'm aware that it is a war zone in the hospitals. When I look outside my window, it's very, very quiet.

Stephan: Yeah. I'm outside as briefly as possible twice a day to take the dog out for a little bit of a walk. But here in Los Angeles there's a- When I take the dog for a walk, there's an area that I can see the mountains and I never knew that there were mountains in that particular direction until this week, because the air has cleared up so much here. And it's extremely quiet and eerie in the neighborhood. But, you know that that kind of goes to one of the topics that I've been following closely with all of this change in how the economy is going. This is a trend that's happening all over the place where we're seeing air pollution drop. In China people were actually trying to figure out can we trace whether the Chinese economy is coming back online based on the air pollution because it was such a dramatic shift. Is that something that you've been looking at at all?

Alden: Yeah, I mean it really puts in stark terms, this issue at the center of environmentalism, which is: Can we keep people employed, gainfully employed and give them a good life without over polluting the planet? That's still very much a question that nobody's really solved. I mean, I would like to say that there's people who believe that technology can help us get there on a very basic level. Legislation scrubbers for those air polluting factories, things like that. But at the same time I had never written about it. But there was a really interesting research project a couple of years ago that looked at about 180 countries around the world. And it looked at the quality of life measures of their citizens, and then how many planetary boundaries in terms of land use, and carbon emissions, and all of these different things. And there is not a country that is able to give its citizens a high quality of life with health, and access to energy, and education, and democratic norms that also is staying within planetary boundaries. So, we're seeing that as a stark example right now, because the air is clearing up and everyone can breathe, but also come tomorrow and rent's going to be due. I'm not sure what calamity is going to happen.

Stephan: Well, in the fashion industry in particular, it seems like it's getting hit from every side because on the one hand you have the laborers, the people who are involved in the manufacturing who are put in these conditions. I mean, here in Los Angeles, we have a lot of garment manufacturing. I'm guessing that a lot of that stuff has shut down right now just because of proximity and people shouldn't be within groups of more than 10-people. I think right now is what Los Angeles has as a guidance, but in other parts of the world, they're probably not maintaining those kinds of standards. Meanwhile, you have the retail side where all kinds of companies are announcing furloughs and layoffs of a very significant amount of their workforce. I know that you were tweeting about H&M for example, paying their workers. How do you think this is going to affect the fashion industry?

Alden: I think that if this goes on for even a few more weeks, it could really deal a death blow to so much of the fashion industry. I think that the large multinational corporations will be fine, especially the ones that make really, really affordable clothing. Because if we do go into a recession, people are going to only buy affordable clothing or secondhand clothing. But what we're seeing now is, so for example, Bangladesh has been in the news a lot first, all these canceled orders came flooding in. They were big brands who are using the force majeure clause in their contract to cancel orders that had already been made and put into boxes for shipping. And they were saying, if you haven't shipped it we're not paying for it. Which puts these factories in a real bind because they paid for the fabric from China or wherever and they sewed it and then they're not going to get paid for it. So, they've been shutting down their factories and laying off workers who have no safety net. Some of the factories are still open because the Bangladesh government has designated them as an essential business because 80% of Bangladesh's exports are fashion. If the fashion industry shuts down in Bangladesh in a more permanent way, it will be a huge crisis for that country.

Alden: Way more than the crisis it will experience in the West. Some of the factories are now shutting down. There's one factory owned by a man called Mostifi's Boudin, and he is trying to pay his workers while they're off so they can stay home and be safe. He's sort of like a social entrepreneur, but he's going to run out of money unless the fashion brands that owe him money pay him, and he doesn't have a lot of leverage right now except for speaking out. Which he's been gaining ground, news outlets are covering this situation in Bangladesh. But it's not just Bangladesh. This is happening in Romania, Morocco, any developing country that makes fashion for us. They're getting their orders canceled and the factory owners are really afraid to speak out because they don't have any power. And once this gets back up and running they want to be the first to get the orders again.

Stephan: Yeah. And you mentioned it being a death-blow when you're thinking about it as a death-blow. Is that to those manufacturers or do you think about that for the brands as well?

Alden: For everyone? I mean, we're going to lose a whole season of clothing. And, that's another question: What's going to happen to all that clothing that's sitting inside clothes stores? Fashion moves so fast right now that we're looking at an entire season of clothing that no one is going to buy. Maybe if we all get out of social isolation in June, we'll go on a shopping rampage, but nobody's going to buy things that were trendy in March, in June. Because if we have to go back inside again, which is a possibility nobody's going to want to buy something trendy and fun and cute, that's expensive, that they're going to wear twice and then they're going to go back inside and start wearing lounge-wear again. So, I think we're looking at millions of tons of clothing that might be landfilled or incinerated or potentially donated. But it's a lot. I mean, that is a huge question looming over the fashion industry right now. What's going to happen to all that unsold clothing? And that's lost revenue for these brands that might not have enough cash to continue to pay their rent. Like any other business or might have loans, small business loans. Once you get down to being a small independent label, the margins are very thin and it's already hard to be an independent label even without looking at a bunch of stock that you've had made and that department stores are no longer accepting.

Stephan: So with Eco Cult, you're writing this as kind of your own website and you're writing about especially round-ups of brands and products that are more sustainable. And one thing that I really appreciate about your website is you're often featuring interesting brands that people may have not heard of before that are making that extra effort. And it's interesting when we have folks on the show who come and talk about sustainability, and I ask them: What are brands that they find inspirational? The same names come to mind. I mean, it's really like four or five names. It's always, you know, Patagonia, Eileen Fisher, Reformation. But you've gone and found multiple dozens of different products from different brands that are interesting. And those seem like some of the companies that are going to be hit the hardest.

Alden: Yeah, it's really sad. I mean, those companies that you named will also be hit really hard because they put doing good at the core of their business, especially someplace like Eileen Fisher or Patagonia. And they're not going to feel comfortable with making the really draconian and hard choices that other sort of amoral corporations will make in order to survive. So laying off all the employees, not providing health care or any sort of income while the employees are off. I mean, rejecting orders, doing all these things. It's going to be really hard to be a socially conscious brand right now because you're already held to such a high standard that often can be an impossible standard in consumer's eyes. And then now you're being faced with an even more impossible choice of survive or try to do right by your employees during this time.

Stephan: Yeah, it's interesting and I don't know how deep to weigh in here, but there's like a lot going on with Everlane for example, which has held itself to a higher standard but has recently laid-off or furloughed a lot of its employees. And I think the level of outrage that is going on there is proportional with also their aims of being this better company. It's interesting that when you hold yourself to a higher standard, you kind of get that backlash more so than the companies who don't, which I dunno sometimes feels unfair maybe.

Alden: Well, I wouldn't say the backlash against Everlane is unfair because anyone who is sort of well versed in what it takes to make a more and sustainable fashion brand knows that Everlane talks a big game, but it doesn't usually back it up. There's similar to Kiana in that way where they came out with a tagline that led consumers to believe that they're more sustainable and transparent than they really were. Right? They were like radical transparency. That was just meant to talk about how they would list the cost of doing various- Like making various products on their site, but then people imputed to them radical transparency and all of these different ways, because sustainable fashion advocates we're using that same term to describe listing your factories, talking about how much you pay your workers, pictures of your factories, third party certifications. All of these different things that Everlane doesn't really actually do.

Alden: And so Everlane has been kind of skating on this not very well earned reputation for a while. And I think people are finally starting to catch up with it, mainly to do the work of a nonprofit called Remake. And there is another nonprofit that kind of went out and shut down a couple of years ago. But these organization's have been saying: Why is Everlane getting all of this attention for being so socially conscious when we don't know how much their workers are paid? We don't know if they're treated fairly. We actually don't know much beyond sort of these like beautiful marketing images.

Stephan: Maybe there's some better examples of what I was trying to say, which is more like, are there those companies that in general hold themselves to a higher standard and are able to do that effectively? But in this time it's going to be a lot harder. I think what you brought up about some of these bigger companies are going to be willing to make some amoral choices with regards to their workers, or their bills, or their rent, or all of these different things that brands that are maybe holding themselves to a higher standard can't do and that hurts them in a crisis.

Alden: Yeah, exactly. It's interesting because right now what we're seeing is H&M, which has been on this push for almost a decade now of trying to be a more conscious fast fashion brand, which a lot of people say is an oxymoron. But they have been doing, they've been investing a lot in sustainability. They've been trying to do things better and sometimes they failed, but they announced that they would be honoring all of their orders that had already been put into production in Bangladesh. So, Zara has not made that commitment. I am not sure that Zara will make that commitment. Maybe they will. I don't know. I don't want to speak for them. But it was interesting to see the discussion around H&M's announcement because it was like, okay, well good for them I guess. I mean that's the least they could do, but it's not the least they could do because they're the only ones I think there were out of 20 biggest brands producing in Bangladesh, they're one of two or three that have made that commitment. The rest have not made that commitment. They've just been canceling orders. So, it's been really fascinating to see that play out and to see if H&M as a large brand will then have been in the long run from making sort of the right choice or the fair business choice or if place like Zara will benefit from not caring and just doing whatever they need to do to preserve their profits.

Stephan: Yeah, and it's one thing that I really appreciate about your reporting as a whole is that you're willing to go into all of these gray areas and nuances and be able to praise companies who are doing things right. Even if in other areas they aren't and H&M is a really interesting one because obviously fast fashion has been under a lot of criticism for a long time now. But they're pushing in this area of more transparency. Where do you rate them overall today? Like across their efforts do you feel like they're generally going in the right direction or is there sort of a cap to how far they can really take it?

Alden: Yeah, I mean you've basically just encapsulated what I've been saying about them, which is, I think they're doing as much as they can within the current global capitalist system that we're in. Right? I think they have like 51% family owned shares in the company, so they're able to do more than other companies can do in terms of investing in sustainability and doing the right thing without seeing an immediate pay off or a return on that investment. So, they've been doing that. But again, there's still a fast fashion company that needs to grow profits or else their shares will tank. Right? And there's going to be an activist investor rebellion. They're not a nonprofit, so they continually need to grow profits and grow revenue and then of course grow how much clothing they're making. A few months ago, one of the CEOs and his name escapes me now, but they're so interesting.

Alden: They're sweet. They're so sweetest, they're so transparent. They just sort of believe that if they just explain things like everyone will understand. And so the CEO said in this interview that he's worried about this supposed trend of Gen-Z not buying as much or millennials not buying as much, that we have consumerism fatigue. And he said this is a problem because it means that people will lose jobs. And he got dragged for that. But he was stating a fact because right now we're seeing the logical conclusion of less consumption, which is consumption has bottomed out. Nobody's buying anything. And therefore millions and millions of garment workers are being sent home with no pay. So, people want to see things in black or white. But I think the answer is is that we need to figure out how to transition the economy, the global economy, not just in fashion but in everything to an economy that that gives work garment workers or any workers, good jobs that they can feed themselves on, but also doesn't rely on pollution and overproduction and all of these different things. We are starting to get there. You know there was all these circular fashion initiatives. The EU is considering transparency legislation and foot-printing legislation for fashion and we were just slowly like getting to that point. And my fear is now that governments, and they're already doing this, we'll use this crisis to brush aside any talk of sustainability or even labor rights and say: We're in a crisis. It doesn't matter. You know, the EPA is no longer regulating pollution right now during the crisis. Bangladesh is probably going to use this as an excuse to tamp down on any organizing for better worker pay. And just say: That's not important right now. We just need to get the economy back up and running. And then we're going to lose another decade of progress because of this.

Stephan: Yeah. That is a huge fear of mine as well. And what you mentioned about the EPA, that is worth underlining. I just want to circle that and highlight that a million times for people because it's like: Hey, look here, because obviously the news if you if you look at the headlines, it's all COVID, but there's all this stuff happening behind the scenes that, just this week it came out that we're in the US rolling back some regulations around car emissions right now, which is like a standard. Yes. And it's extremely frustrating to think about this time of crisis becoming like an opportunity for sustainability initiatives to be rolled back when I feel like-

Alden: Yeah and at the same time, there's also people who are cynically using this as an opportunity to ban reusable bag legislation because-

Stephan: Really, I haven't seen that?

Alden: Yeah, they're saying: Oh, it's not hygienic. You can't have people bringing their usable bags into the store. Which I beg to differ, because I would rather bring all my reusable bags into the store that I've sanitized and put all my groceries in them and then check out that way without ever touching a shopping cart. But what do I know?

Stephan: Well, I think that one thing that is a little frustrating here in the USA obviously just like watching the press briefings of the white house is, I think that if we had good leaders in in the Western world they would be able to take some of the energy that is coming together of this is a moment in time where the whole world is somewhat kind of on the same page about the fact that we have a common enemy right now, which is this virus and we have to solve this problem and we're mobilizing all of these resources. A lot of people are dedicating their time to try to solve this problem. People who are typically, in the entrepreneurial community, I see a lot of founders who are diverting 50-plus percent of their time to try and like work on things that would be helpful to this crisis.

Stephan: And the virus is a thing that is happening right now on a time-span that is very short. And so there's a sense of urgency that is kind of like galvanizing this climate is this like very slow motion thing that's happening that's been happening for decades and is going to keep happening for decades. And so it's harder to mobilize everyone in the same way. But I feel like if we had good leaders who could kind of draw that comparison, we would be able to take that same energy and apply it as things, hopefully get better with COVID to the problem of climate change. Yeah, I mean it is really interesting to draw that line because the prediction that galvanized everyone around actually doing something about this virus was that 2-million people could die in the United States.

Alden: I haven't compared that to the numbers around air pollution, car crashes, because people don't have access to public transportation, hurricanes. All of the preventable health diseases that come from having a really messed up food system. All of these different things, you don't also cause people to die. But we keep talking about that. And yet people don't listen because I guess it's slow moving. It's not new. It's we're hearing like we are quibbling over these little things instead of saying: Look, climate change will also impact the economy in a big way, the way COVID will. And yet it's not something that we want to do anything about. And maybe that's because COVID kills people no matter how much money you have versus with climate change you have rich people fleeing the city to go to the Hamptons or upstate or, in the case of California, other places. And it's becoming really clear that that's not working. Because when you flee the city for your vacation home, you're going to a place that has five ICU beds versus thousands in the city. And so I think people are like: Oh, it doesn't matter how wealthy you are. A lot of wealthy people have been infected, you're putting yourself in danger, you're putting other people in danger. Versus I think with climate change people are thinking like: Oh, that's a Bangladesh problem. Like, oh, I'll just sell my house and move inland or something like that. And I don't think that's necessarily true. But I think that's sort of the general feeling among people around climate change.

Stephan: Is there anything that's making you feel optimistic right now?

Alden: Is there anything that's making me feel optimistic? I do think there is some truth that could show people the value of cooking at home and spending time with their loved ones or reconnecting in that way. And so I think that that's a good thing. But, otherwise it feels, I have to say it feels wrong to feel optimistic right now. Do you know what I'm saying? Like it feels not empathetic to talk about the upsides of this.

Stephan: Well, it's interesting. I think a lot of people are, I'm seeing on Instagram and different places, all kinds of photos of parents. There's a lot of hugging, maybe too much hugging given the social distancing of kids. But I think that anyone who's between the ages of like five and 12 right now, it will be fascinating to find out how they remember this time 20-years from now, because none of the kids are in school. They're spending a lot more time at home. They're learning things from their parents in a different way. I'm just fascinated to find out how that ends up impacting our society, and I think in general that will hopefully have a positive impact. And I think some of those traditions that you're talking about of cooking and teaching and spending more time together might be a good thing. I'm trying to put an optimistic hat on and see what, what I can come up with.

Alden: I will say this, there is something that I'm a little bit optimistic about, which is, I think the last time we saw a disruption like this was in the great depression and what came out of the great depression was horrific. But what came out of it was a social safety net. And I think this is making very clear to people that we need to update our social safety net.

Stephan: Oh yeah. I mean the health care in the US it's just going to be untenable.

Alden: Yes. It's untenable, it's absolutely untenable and paid time-off and all of these different things. So, if I have any reason to be optimistic, it's my hope that the suffering that we are going through today will produce a better life for people who are kids today and so forth.

Stephan: I wonder how the shift to remote work will persist, whether it will persist, I think that it's going to be a slow gradual return to normal if there is one. And it seems like a lot of companies are learning for the first time how to work remotely. And if they find it to be as productive or 90% as productive or more productive, we might see that persist. And I wonder if that does have its own sustainability benefits in the sense that people are not commuting as much. Is there something there you think?

Alden: You know, it's funny because I've been working from home for quite some time. So, my work-day has not changed much. But I think it will be a good thing that people know that they can work from home,that it's forcing companies to set things up so that someone can work from home if they're sick or if they, for whatever reason they need to work from home. Whereas before it was like, no, you can't work. You can't work from home. We don't have the technology, we don't believe in it, blah, blah, blah. If they need to take care of their kids or whatever. And so I think that will help in a lot of ways. But I do wonder about the psychological drawbacks, how this could break the little bit of community that we had, community spirit that we had remaining in the United States. So, I signed up for a co-working space last year, because I wanted a place to have meetings and it was nice to head into a place with other humans besides my cat and get a little bit of work done and run into people and have contact. And I think this will have really profound psychological effects on everyone. You know, like retired people, elderly people, and there's that sort of stereotype, which is true about how they will talk any waitresses or cashier's ear-off because they don't go to work anymore. And so they need someone to talk to. And that's all of us now. You know?

Stephan: I mean I think it's interesting because the joke I was seeing on Twitter was something like: Oh, it turns out all of these meetings could have been emails, which is like really coming from the corporate culture side where everything is a meeting. And so for you, maybe like day to day life is not affected so much because it's like writing, working from home. Personally, I do a lot of work from home as well. So, at my company we've been using Slack and digital stuff for forever. So, we were ready for this.

Alden: Yeah. But I wonder like if this is going make it so that companies become these microcosms of the worst part of the internet where people are just misreading each other and fighting with each other and devolving into stupid fights over nothing.

Stephan: You're always, you're really good at pouring a cold glass of water on my optimism.

Alden: Sorry, I'm sorry. This is on my mind. My sister she's a consulted for organizational conflict and she's offering free conflict resolution right now.

Stephan: Where do you stand on e-commerce? Because I think that there's been an interesting conversation going on there. It's also fraught with a lot of complexity there when it comes to Amazon workers going on protest at the moment and kind of in all of these essential categories, we're seeing a huge boom in some other areas just like in retail fashion and other segments are affected. But something interesting has been the emergence of the fact that there's many folks who haven't really participated in eCommerce. The US is actually far behind China and the UK in terms of the adoption of eCommerce surprisingly. Were only 11% of retail spending happens through e-commerce versus 30-plus percent in China and the UK. Now, some of those consumers are experiencing that for the first time. I wonder how that will have a durable impact on the way people buy things. Is that something that you've been looking at at all?

Alden: Yeah, I've been thinking about that a lot because you will. So, a little bit of the behind the scenes of what's going on at Eco Cult. We try not to link to Amazon very often because I have really huge issues with the way they run their business. Which I'm sure everyone, all your listeners are aware of.

Stephan: We talk about it a lot on the podcast.

Alden: I try not to link to them, but at the same time sometimes something that we want to send traffic to is only available on Amazon. We got a notification that they were shutting down their affiliate program. Then the next day I got an email. I had ordered some not necessary items off of Amazon the week before. I'm sorry, I'll admit it and I got an email saying that they wouldn't be delivered. I mean they were like sponges and stuff. I got an email saying they wouldn't be delivered until April 22nd and then I had listened in on a webinar by Next Web and they were talking about how retail has been impacted and they said that Amazon has cut their online spending to almost nothing. I think what Amazon's going through right now is that their workers are protesting and walking out. They are completely inundated with orders. They're trying to hire more workers and they just are not trying to acquire new customers right now or they're not spending on acquiring new customers right now. And so I think that anyone who's tried to order from Amazon starting now will have a bad experience and maybe some traffic will be diverted from Amazon back to other places that can sell you the thing that you need, like booksellers or small businesses. So, we've been going through and really linking all of our Amazon links to either directly to the businesses site or in the case of books, Barnes and Noble. But, at the same time also we're taking some links out completely to products that we're not super excited about just because it's not really worth our time to send traffic there when we could send traffic somewhere else. So, that's been really interesting to watch.

Stephan: On Eco Cult for people who don't know, you're featuring a lot of different brands. I think you've been doing a really great job of grouping them by category and helping people understand all of the interesting products that are for example, you have a sustainable lounge-wear, very appropriate for the current time. If you were to make recommendations for the people who come to Eco Cult are consumers who have this mind-set of looking for sustainable and thoughtful products. What would you tell them more broadly about how to shop or what to be looking for currently?

Alden: Oh, wow. That's a big question. So, when I founded Eco Cult in 2013, my bar was very low for featuring your brand. It was like if they made any effort whatsoever and I was like, great, you get a spot. And then we've seen the market has been flooded with a lot of different sustainable products in every category. Let's take bathing suits for a second. There were like no sustainable bathing suits five years ago. Now, there's gotta be 20 different brands and so my bar has been going up. And so now what I'm looking for and I don't expect anyone to do this semester research, which is why I do it for them on Eco Cult. But I'm looking for, at this point, I'm looking for third-party party certifications. There's some big ones, like OKA text makes sure that the things that you're buying don't have toxic residue dyes in them.

You have Good On You, which rates different fashion brands. You have Blue Sign, which is also about toxicity in the supply chain. You have GOTS, which is about organic and you have all these different certifications. And if I see a brand that's saying that they're sustainable, but they don't have one third party certification, I'm not prone to believe it unless they're super tiny starting out. But even then, they should have a pretty robust sustainability page that says, here's what we're doing, here's what we would like to do better. I usually recommend to brands that are really trying to talk about their sustainability, that they have a sustainability page that has different layers. You have the front page that just says, this is what we're about. And then people can click through and learn more. And so I tell people who are trying to find good brands that you can really just do a gut check and say like, are they talking about sustainability? Do they talk about in a detailed, did they answer all my questions? Are they transparent with all of these different things? Did they have third-party party certifications? If they have those things, they're usually a pretty good brand.

Stephan: What are the things that you look for? You mentioned certifications, but what makes you suspicious of greenwashing claims that get your greenwashing sense tingling?

Alden: Mmm. A lot of times there will be sort of pick and choosing. A brand will say, we're really sustainable. We donate to a charity and some of our fashion is made from recycled polyester. If they're cherry-picking, that's one thing. Another thing is there's a lot of small brands that have their heart in the right place, but it becomes super clear really quickly, to me anyway, that they don't actually understand what sustainability means. And it also comes through if they're working with a PR agency that doesn't understand either. Sometimes, the one time I got a pitch from a brand that said that all their clothing was made from raw botanic fibers. And I was like, is it an herbal remedy? Like what does that mean? And it was literally just, I think it was Tencel, which is a branded fabric from the company Lenzing that is made from eucalyptus trees, but it goes through a chemical process, a closed loop, but it still involves chemicals. Or even a brand will say their stuff is plant-based when it's made from rayon which again is taking a tree and like really doing terrible things to it with chemicals to turn it into a fabric, which is sort of like calling high fructose corn syrup vegan. Yes, it is vegan technically, but it's not healthy. I actually see a lot of that, especially in the small brand space. It's just they're super excited and they don't actually understand what's going on. And so I really love it when I see a brand that gets into the weeds because you can tell they spent a lot of time talking to experts before throwing money at starting a brand that might actually not be sustainable at all.

Stephan: Yeah, I see the same thing in the world of printing and packaging with Lumi and one of the things that is always a little bit of a red flag, it's again in that vein of their heart is in the right place, but then they haven't really done the research is anyone who's main way of solving this is something like planting trees or carbon offsets where it's like there's sort of just looking at a solution that helps them. Again, I love trees. We should have more trees, we should plant trees. But that is just such a very narrow way to look at your impact as a company. And so the hard part about sustainability is it's just not one thing. You have to go into the weeds of all of the different areas of your supply chain. And so that is an interesting point that you bring up.

Alden: Yeah. And what you're describing is such an outdated view of corporate social responsibility. Every corporation has their philanthropic arm — great. But really we're getting into the point now where true sustainability means looking at your core product, your core service and saying, is this subtracting from the world in some way? How can I mitigate directly that subtraction? Not just like take from the world and then take, however much from the world and then donate 5% of that back in a completely different area.

Stephan: Yeah. And we had one of the founders of Climate Neutral, which is an offsetting program on the show a few episodes back. And I actually think that the way he was explaining it was great. They're trying to provide these tools that help people do everything they can. And then with whatever, they can't offset that. That's the piece that you should use to be able to offset the things that are really hard to remove like people commuting to your office or something like that. So, it can't be like the only solution for, I guess greenwashing is the only good term to explain it. But papering over all of the messiness that's happening behind the scenes and not like being willing to go investigate it.

Alden: Yeah, exactly.

Stephan: How do you go about like parsing the information and trying to share it with people in a way that is understandable? I heard you on a podcast talk about Maslow's pyramid. Being a sustainable conscious consumer is something that is possible if you've sort of reached a certain echelon in Maslow's hierarchy, but it takes a lot of information. It's like democracy. Being a conscious good voter means you have to be out there reading all of the people's positions and policies and all that kind of stuff. Where do you find the right balance to be?

Alden: Yeah, that's a really good question. It's so interesting you bring up the voter analogy because it is hard enough to vote once every two years for the right candidate. This idea of every purchase you make is a vote for the world you want to see. That's a lot of research that you would have to do to do that. I mean, God, it's hard enough to pick a person much less like every purchase.

Stephan: Yeah. I was buying toothbrushes recently and I was like, this is like the most research, I do more research to find a toothbrush than to some of the political issues that we're voting for.

Alden: Right. So, how do I translate this? Well, I have to say that my philosophy has changed a lot since I started doing this in 2013. In 2013 I was like, I'm going to start a blog. It's going to have pretty pictures. And my role is to just convince people through the pretty pictures and the writing that living sustainably is awesome. And that's what I'm going to do. And I've done a pretty big 180 on that thinking. You've read my article, “A Conscious Consumption is a Lie” https://qz.com/920561/conscious-consumerism-is-a-lie-heres-a-better-way-to-help-save-the-world/, where I talk about how I haven't seen any evidence that educating consumers has led to a reduction of the negative impact on the environment in any product category. The only time I've seen that is the fact that American's are eating less red meat, but it's not because we think it's good for the environment. It's because there's been this steady drumbeat of health news around cancer and heart disease and weight and all of these things that people care really deeply about. But I think a lot of people are coming around to this idea that we need to trust the experts again to do the research and then tell us what to do. And you see this with the COVID crisis too. It's like if our leader's would just trust the scientific experts who walked us through a modelling of what a pandemic would look like and what we would need to do. This wouldn't be a problem. And I think it's the same thing with anything that has to do with sustainability. We need more experts in chemistry to tell us how to make clothing and products that are non-toxic to human health. And we need engineers who can tell us how to make factories, use less energy, whatever, all of these different things. And so you're asking how do I translate these things to the lay-person? If you go to Eco Cult lay-people who just want to know where to buy jeans, they will find that on Eco Cult. And that's fine. I'm sending traffic to companies that I think are doing better and I'm not taking from the world. I don't think it's revolutionary, but I think that it's on balance. It's doing good. But also I spend half of my time writing articles that experts will read that decision makers can read that can inform their decisions, that have these larger ramifications. And the third thing that I do is that I'm always telling people, hey, legislation, we need to start diverting all of these resources that we're pouring into educating the consumer and start putting them into organizing again and thinking about how we can build a systemic change that benefits a lot of people instead of conscious consumption, which is something that only the privilege and educated can really engage in

Stephan: That's a really awesome breakdown of the stake-holders, the consumers, the experts, the legislation. I think that that's really smart and it's hard to talk to all three at the same time, but it's kind of what needs to happen. And as you were describing that tension about whether or not more informed consumers can really have an impact. It was interesting to think about it that way where there is this sort of challenge between, we can't all do all of that research, but if the information is out there, I guess it's a tension between full transparency and information and then expertise and curation of that information by certain people who, whether they're certifications or just experts or people who are curators to bring that information together and help consumers have someone to trust. But then you have to have consumers who are willing to trust experts and you have to have experts who are reliable and truthful. There's a lot of experts. It's easy to become a curator nowadays without having very much basis in fact or anything like that.

Alden: There's a lot of misinformation pinging around and it can be frustrating sometimes because sometimes I do want to weigh in and say like, no, no, no, no, no. That's not how it works. Let me explain to you how the system works and then you can put your energy towards the thing. But then I just get sucked into ridiculousness and so I just have to continually breathe and say like, look, you know what? You're really fortunate to have the ear of some people who are pretty high up in fashion companies and also to be able to talk to people with PhDs about this and if you can translate the PhD’s speak into something that the business people or even representatives will read that's a privilege to be able to take on that role.

Stephan: Do you think, going back to the example of H&M for example, they've been making this big push towards supply chain transparency and some people have called into question how effective really is that? But is your point that it may be is not going to be the end consumer who ends up reading that, but the experts are the decision makers and so it's important from that perspective still as a mode of accountability.

Alden: I will say this about H&M. When H&M promised that they were going to pay a living wage by, I think it was 2020, I think that they also believed in sort of this idea of conscious consumption, right? Like they also believe that a corporation can make a unilateral decision to be a better corporation and that's what we're going to do. Changing the world one sock at a time and then they realized that they couldn't, that even though they are, I think they're the biggest exporter out of Bangladesh, they couldn't fix that system that led to the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in 2013 which killed over 1100 people. They couldn't fix that system by themselves. And what did fix that system was a legally binding agreement that shared power between brands and international local labor unions that everyone came into and forced safety into the system so that it was no longer voluntary or a nice to have from any of these people. And I just want to emphasize how radical that agreement was because it used to be over 75 garment workers would die every year in garment factories from fires and collapses. Now, maybe one and there's still fires and collapses going on in Bangladesh, just not in the garment factories, and so if we're going to fix all of these things we can't keep giving all of our power away to corporations. Whether because we're telling them you need to do better or because we're telling each other like if we just shop better, they will have to change. It really comes down to organizing and changing the system.

Stephan: I think to some extent I feel like you're not giving yourself enough credit. I don't know where your, for example that article in Vox about poly-mailers. Was that in your mind intended for consumers or for experts?

Alden: It was intended for both because I wrote it in a way that showed consumers what's going on, but I knew that experts would read it. It was a way of transferring information from a company like Patagonia that's been studying this issue for a long time to a small entrepreneur or small company that is curious about this issue, but doesn't have the resources that Patagonia does to test out all of these different options. It was also talking to consumers because passionate consumers can expend a lot of energy yelling at brands about things like this. It makes their lives a little bit easier if I can tell them why brands are making the choices they're making. Also it makes the brand's lives a little bit easier because when they get those comments or emails or questions, they can turn to my writing and say, here are the options that we're looking at. It's generally agreed upon that there's not a good option at this point that's completely plastic free, but we're working on it.

Stephan: I've linked to that article probably more than any other article in the past year or two, different companies and people that I know. It has that level of nuance to try and explain the problem from all the different perspectives. I'm on the manufacturing end of things and every single day we have brands who reach out to us who are trying to improve their packaging and where sustainability ranks in their priorities has gone just in the past 18-months. This is completely anecdotal, but if I look at what people are saying in terms of why they're reaching out to us, it's gone from maybe sustainability is like their fifth or sixth priority behind price and lead times and quality and service level and all these other things to maybe third or second most of the time priority behind price. Price is number one. That is a really interesting shift that's happened and I'm not going to give you full credit this is because of your article, but I do think there's those people who are supply chain managers and experts and they are trying to make better decisions, but they're also consumers themselves. They are responding to an increasing amount of comments on their Instagram or their Twitter or different places where people are asking these questions and saying: Why is your thing coming in plastic? Or how can I recycle this? And all this type of conversation that is emerging in a louder way. Maybe that's 1% of their consumers, but they're vocal and they are affecting their decision making.

Alden: Well, can I throw some more cold water on you? So, what's been really interesting is seeing people are really, really focused on plastic right now. But the thing is that I don't think consumers know that everything has a trade off. Let's go to plastic bags for a second. One thing I've been seeing a lot of free-ads sustainable brands do is they're getting their stuff made. It gets to them, they take it out of the plastic poly-bag, which automatically comes with everything that you've added in a factory and they put it in a beautiful organic cotton reusable tote and then send that to the consumer. That is where the consumer is and they're understanding reasonable cotton tote or get a cotton tote, better than plastic poly-bag mailer. First, let's talk about the fact that if you are a consumer that cares about the environment, you probably have 75 reasonable tag's in your home. This is an ongoing source of conflict between my husband and I. The reasonable bag question, he will steal them from me and hide them or throw them out when I'm not looking. And there have been a few different life-cycle analyses of the impact of producing a plastic bag and a cotton bag on climate and emissions, water usage, land uses, all these different things and you would have to use a reusable bag cotton bag anywhere from 130 to 10,000 times to bring it's impact below that of a poly-bag.

Stephan: Last year around earth day we launched leave me this framework that is designed for supply chain managers to make these decisions and it's 12-different sustainability properties and we're adding a whole bunch more this year. We're adding six or seven more, one of them being exactly around reusability and exactly this question that you're bringing up. This stuff is not simple. We're not going to try and simplify it. For every property there is why you should do this and why you should not do this and try to weigh it for the specific context that you're in. Whether compostability makes sense, whether reusability makes sense, whether curb-side recyclability or renewable materials, local fabrication, volume reduction. There's all of these different strategies and they don't all make sense and they're definitely not compatible with each other. But I think it goes to your point of how does that information translate back down to the consumer? They don't even have enough insight into the supply chain of the brand that they're purchasing from to really understand whether those decisions make sense collectively or not. To me it's been one of the biggest discoveries in my career starting from being an industrial designer to now like running this packaging company is how much power is supply chain managers actually have in this whole process. Helping educate them is such an important thing, because their decisions end up rippling out to millions of people and it's so complex that if you can get them educated, then hopefully you can make an improvement.

Alden: That is one of the life insights that I've really come to cherish over the past year, which is people can do as much as they want on social media and commenting and all of these different things. But in this world true power lies with the king makers, not the kings as they say. Nobody on social media knows or cares who that supply chain manager is, but they're the ones who are making these huge decisions and I think that's true for so many things in sustainability, because it's so complex. The people who are making the decisions are usually middle managers. It does have to come from the top, of course, for a fashion to truly be sustainable, you have to have the whole executive suite or the founder on board so that that middle manager feels empowered to make those decisions. But in the end that decision making power is really lying with the people who are, who are hidden behind the scenes.

Stephan: This is where the day-to-day decisions happen. The company overall, if it has good principles and has a framework or a decision making process that is geared towards sustainability, that definitely helps. Then the day to day decisions is where the rubber meets the road. How do you actually make a choice around this particular one product that you're making right now? And it's the accumulation of all those like individual small choices that end up determining whether you're having an impact or not. I'll leave this open ended as a plug for Lumi because this has been a project that I've been working on for a really long time, which is this thing called Lumi ID. Did you see this, by the way?

Alden: Lumi ID? What is it?

Stephan: It's an identification system for packaging. So if you go to lumi.com/ID you can check it out. For the consumer. It's basically a QR code that you can scan with your phone and then you can understand how the packaging that you received was manufactured. Where it was made, the specifications of it, does it have any certifications around like chain of custody for example, like a FSC or SFI? The brand if they have their own certifications or they're part of something like B-labs or 1% for the planet can feature that. It basically helps consumers answer questions that otherwise they would have to email the brand about. It also gives localized instructions on how to dispose of the packaging. For every different category this is what we were trying to solve for was having a standardized system that works across any kind of packaging, whether it's corrugate, poly, aluminum, glass, anything have a standard way that people can- Because every different material, there's dozens and dozens of different certifications and labels and standards that exist for every different type of material. Having a more standardized way that you can look this up and find your local recycling facilities, if you have a local curb-side program, if you have local composting facilities. All of that stuff is accessible through the QR-code. You just put in your zip code and it tells you what the best option is. We rank it based on what is the best for the planet in your particular area.

Alden: This is incredible. Can I ask you, with all of the sort of local legislation and also there's a federal bill introduced, which we'll see how far that gets. But there's all this legislation starting to come out that is telling larger brands, not small brands, but brands of a certain size that they have to essentially pay a fee for all of the un-recyclable consumer products and packaging that they sell in a municipality. If it's not recyclable or it doesn't have any value, they have to pay a larger fee than if it's a high value recyclable material that the city can sell instead of paying to take to a landfill.

Stephan: Are you saying this is happening in the US? Federal? What is it called?

Alden: The federal one is called Break Free From Plastic Act.

Stephan: Plastic Pollution Act 2020. Okay, interesting.

Alden: Yeah. That one expands bottle or container deposit systems and make it federal, so we don't have this patchwork. There's more in there. And then there's local- Where was it? Was it Time magazine? Did something about how there's all these like local municipalities and States that are introducing and putting into place legislation that essentially takes extended producer responsibility and says: If you make the packaging, it's your responsibility to figure out what to do with it. Not ours.

Stephan: Yeah, it looks like this was introduced about a month ago and it's starting in 2022. That's cool.

Alden: Yeah. It looks like your system, without knowing too much about it, would be sort of an on-ramp to knowing as a company if this were to happen, where would your company even fall? Because you've already set up all of this backend architecture to know what kind of packaging you're using and what can be done with it.

Stephan: Well, one of the big problems that is just really hard to solve is first of all, what material is your thing made out of? It's shocking to me how many companies that we work with actually don't know what materials the products they make are made out of. We built this system to track exactly what grade of corrugate or plastic it actually is for those types of materials. The other thing that is kind of tricky is there's been this like anti-recycling narrative that has been coming up recently because it's sort of an out-cropping of the fact that China and a lot of Asian countries have started to refuse receiving recyclables, which has had a really problematic effect in the US because now plastic is being landfilled instead of being recycled. But on the other hand, paper and aluminum have really high recovery rates.

They're actually being recycled. Really the problem is more around plastic than some of these other materials. And it's a little hard for people to parcel those different pieces of information. There's a real infrastructure problem that exists right now in the US around plastic recycling. It's just completely lacking. There's problems all around that need to be solved, and the system that we built, it's not a certification, it's just a tool that helps identify what that thing is so that the best practices today and whenever that packaging might be found or used can apply, so that it can be updated dynamically over time, if that makes sense. If you have a box in your closet that you've had for five years and it's printed with something, that information might no longer be relevant. So, how do we make sure that that stays up to date over time as the best evolves or new regulations get introduced, that kind of thing. I don't know enough about this new regulation. I got to read up on it to find out how we could be helpful towards it. But it definitely seems like in line with what we're thinking.

Alden: Also, it's not just about over time, it's about how every municipality has different rules. A bunch of our friends got a house in Pennsylvania, rural Pennsylvania for our new year's Eve and I became the recycling czar. I had everyone combo-saying, and I looked up the local recycling thing. Obviously it was rural so we had to drop it off and it really offended people that they wouldn't take glass and I think it's because glass is heavy. A lot of places aren't recycling glass now even though it's endlessly recyclable, but it's just very low value. They just couldn't believe it. Every morning I would check the recycling area and there would be all of these glass bottles lined. I'd be like, you can't recycle this. And I'd put it in the trash and they would get so upset. They'd be like, what are you doing?

Stephan: Glass is infinitely recyclable, like aluminum and what do we need to do to get to a place? It's not like one thing, it's a systematic problem. How do we make sure that those products have a place to go? Or how do we make the system efficient enough that the value of recycling those becomes worthwhile to put it through that process. It's complicated.

Alden: I'm very much into expanding the deposit system because I think the deposit system is such a beautiful way to get money. First of all, it works to get recyclables where they need to go. And second of all, it's a beautiful way to transfer money from people who have more money than time, to people who have more time than money.

Stephan: I agree with that and it also creates an incentive for the company to own inventory that has a value to it. People can read all of your work and find out more about you. Where would you like to send? Alden Wicker is your Twitter handle? Aldenwicker.com, ecocult.com. Where should we send people to?

Alden: That pretty much says it and you know, I also have a newsletter that people should sign up for at ecocult.com where it has the stories we put out, but it also has all of the sustainable fashion news that's come out in the past two weeks in there. That can be really useful for people if they want to learn more and not just about my work but about everything that's going on.

Stephan: What are you working on right now?

Alden: I am working on a DIY instructional for how to make a face mask out of a reusable grocery bag that you probably have in your home that is for freelance outlet. And then I'm also working on a really interesting story about what we can learn from the great depression and World War II about how this crisis will change the way we dress.

Stephan: Awesome. Thank you Alden. This was a really fun conversation. I really appreciate you coming on and sharing your wealth of knowledge.

Alden: Thank you so much for having me. It was a really great conversation.

Stephan: Thanks for listening. If you enjoyed the show, if you got something useful out of it, I would love to hear what that was. Consider writing a short review. It could be just a sentence long by going to iTunes and searching for Well Made. I want to hear it all. I want to hear good, bad. I want to hear your constructive criticisms. I am just trying to make this show as useful as possible for you. So tell us what you think that is the very best way that you can support the show. Thanks and see you next time.


You can find this and all future episodes on iTunes, Google Play, and here on the Lumi blog. This episode was edited by Evan Goodchild.

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